What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?

I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event seem not only plausible but convincing.

Trying to answer this difficult question in 650 words or less, I could say that part of what makes the 19th-century Russian writers so distinctive — why we still read them with such pleasure and fascination — is the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience. Not the computer-dating experience, obviously, or the airplane-seat-rage experience, or the “Where is the takeout I ordered an hour ago?” experience. But plenty of other crucial events and emotions appear, unforgettably, in their work: childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace.

I could mention the breadth and depth of their range, their success at making the individual seem universal, the fact that — though they inhabited the same country and century — each of “the Russians” is different from the others. I could applaud their ability to persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that something about the human heart and soul transcends the surface distinctions of nationality, social class and time. I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event — a man wakes up to discover that his nose has gone missing — seem not only plausible but convincing; the way in which Dostoyevsky’s people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other’s feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar; the mournful delicacy of Chekhov, his uncanny skill at revealing the deepest emotions of the men, women and children who populate his plays and short stories; the ambition and insight that suffuses Tolstoy’s small moments (jam-making and mushroom-picking) and epic set pieces (a disastrous horse race, the Battle of Borodino); the subtlety with which Turgenev portrays the natural landscape and his meticulously rendered but ultimately mysterious characters.

Alternately, I could suggest that anyone seeking a more complete answer to this question read Nabokov’s “Lectures on Russian Literature.” Certain aspects of the book can be irritating: Nabokov’s aristocratic prejudices, his contempt for Dostoyevsky’s “neurotics and lunatics,” his dismissal of almost all Soviet-era literature. (What about Akhmatova, Platonov and Babel?) On the other hand, no one has written more perceptively about two of Chekhov’s most affecting stories, “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “In the Gully,” nor presented such a persuasive argument for the brilliance of “Anna Karenina.” And however we may bristle at his suggestion that if we can’t read Gogol in Russian, we probably shouldn’t read him at all, our admiration for Gogol is heightened by Nabokov’s explanation of how he replaced the conventions “inherited from the ancients. The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green” — with fresh and precise descriptive language. “It was Gogol . . . who first saw yellow and violet at all.”

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